Happy 3rd Birthday to this Newsletter, the Outer Banks Beach Doritos of the Internet
In 2006, a shipping container fell off of a vessel and washed thousands of bags of nacho chips ashore along Hatteras Island. Also, this newsletter is beginning its fourth year of existence.
“How’s the fishing?” Hissey asked.
“I got two stripers and 35 bags of Doritos,” the captain answered.
On this exact day 17 years ago, fishermen spotted a shipping container bobbing in the water off of Hatteras Island. They’d been trying to catch striped bass. Instead, they broke open the container and helped themselves to the Doritos inside.
The container and the chips then drifted toward land, coming to rest south of the fishing pier in Frisco. Islanders just started picking up unopened bags and stuffing them into sacks. Because, you know, free Doritos.
If you’re new here, you may be saying to yourself: What’s the big deal? Who cares? So what if hundreds of bags of Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese chips ended up strewn across miles worth of beaches? This happened almost two decades ago. HOW IS THIS NEWS?!
If you’ve been here for a while, you’re probably thinking to yourself: Ah yes, this is very much a Rabbit Hole story.
We’ve reached this newsletter’s third birthday. November 19th was the actual birth day, but I’m finally getting around to mentioning it here. I hate writing these birthday updates. I really do. I’ve started and stopped on, like, five different versions of this particular post. I’d much rather write a regular Rabbit Hole story. So, instead of sending you a straight-up newsletter about boring stuff like subscription numbers and future plans and apologies for stuff that I said I was going to do and didn’t, I’m just going to mash all of that stuff between paragraphs about Doritos washing up on the Outer Banks in 2006.
First up, this newsletter now has more than 7,650 free subscribers. That’s incredible. The very first post here in November 2020 only went to 58 people. Growth has been steady over time, meaning it’s transitioned from initial bursts fueled by social media and the occasional viral post to largely word-of-mouth. People are telling other people to subscribe, and this newsletter picks up something along the lines of 200 new signups every month. I don’t do any disciplined marketing or advertising for it. Yes, I post about this stuff on social media. I’m occasionally on the radio talking about things I’ve written. The North Carolina State Fair asked me to help them create a scavenger hunt for adults this year. Skateboarding god Tony Hawk cut a promo for me once (I swear to you that I am not making that up):
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Overall, I subscribe to the same general theory as Defector: “We believe good blogs are our best marketing tool for acquiring subscribers.” I’m not trying to brag here, but if you didn’t like this stuff, you’d ask me to stop sending it to you. And yes, people do ask me to stop sending them emails. My subscriber numbers tend to rise steadily during the week when I am not posting things here, then immediately dip in the hours after I post something. If I followed the analytics like a smart businessperson, I would surely follow a bold and innovative new newsletter strategy: NEVER POST.
The National Park Service has jurisdiction over Hatteras Island’s beaches. They found out about the container full of Doritos around noon on November 30, 2006. By that time, islanders had already been picking them up for hours. One person filled up the entire bed of his pickup truck with Doritos. Other grabbed what they could carry in their arms. The Island Free Press stated that the Great Doritos Wash-Up of 2006 was “the greatest day in Hatteras Island history” and “a genuine miracle.”
Free subscriber growth continues. Paid subscribers have leveled off. At this moment, there are 288 paid subscribers to this newsletter. That’s down from a peak of 303 back in September. There’s no one obvious reason why (although some people’s credit cards expire and the billing fails). I’ll put this part simply: Paid subscribers keep this site going. I’ve talked about this in the past, but I do believe that being a professional writer and reporter means there needs to be some sort of financial compensation involved. If I wasn’t writing here, I’d be writing somewhere, and that somewhere would need to pay me. The Rabbit Hole, as I mentioned last year, changed the calculation for me. I don’t have to decide what place might want to buy my weird story. It’s been more than a year since I said “yes” to a freelance writing assignment. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be up for new opportunities. I am! Hit me up, podcast, video, and internet people! It just means that for now, writing here almost always makes the most sense for me. It’s fun. Substack, my hosting platform, cuts down the time I spend on the business side of the Rabbit Hole. Plus, I feel like I’m building something with every story I write. I’d never had that feeling before now.
The last paragraph sounds very business-y and cold, so I want to talk about the emotional part of this. Which is: I am extremely grateful for each and every one of you who gives up something to keep this going. In the past, I’ve worked for TV stations where my job was subsidized by commercials, or at Our State, where my writing was a small part of a 150- to 250-page monthly magazine of beautiful stuff that made money from subscription fees and ads. It was plausible that you could absolutely despise everything I created and still not stop reading or writing and I would continue to receive a paycheck. It’s a very different proposition to ask someone to directly subsidize your writing. On the first day I offered paid subscriptions two years ago, I nearly cried as the first payments came in. That feeling hasn’t gone away.
According to a 2017 Atlas Obscura entry about the Doritos: “This incident will be forever remembered in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, where a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos is displayed among other less delicious victims of the sea.”
A very long time ago, I had a personal blog, and I described it as “writing contained only by bandwidth and a lack of free time.” That was back before we had kids! Last spring, I wrote a weekly newsletter AND I taught a journalism course at Wake Forest AND I had a full-time communications job with the university’s Program for Leadership and Character (UPDATE: The scope of the Program and my role with it have grown exponentially, which can see by perusing the news section and social media feeds that our talented team keeps updated). It was a LOT. Over the last year, when I promised an ambitious idea, I often ran out of time to pull it off. Hence, when I was finally able to get control of my old podcast feed again after 2 1/2 years, I thought: Oh hell yeah, it’s podcast time. But then I remembered, oh no, good podcasts take a lot of time to produce! Plus, I didn’t want to disappoint people who liked the quality of my old Away Message episodes. So I froze, and then I just stopped making them. Sorry! I’ll try to make more! Someday! I also ordered a bunch of stickers to send out to any paid subscribers who wanted one. Here they are! Still in the package!
I still have a lot! (Paid subscribers, there’s a link at the top of this newsletter with a link to signup form if you want me to send you one).
Even though I sometimes say “we” when I talk about the Rabbit Hole, it’s mostly just me. I am only one man. I do what I can. Hence, I’ve toyed with semi-regular paid subscriber-only posts, and early looks at newsletters for people who pay monthly or yearly. But my ability to do those things ebbs and flows, depending on work and family commitments. I’ve had some opportunities come my way in relation to this newsletter, and I haven’t had a lot of time to pursue many of them. I should say: Writing the Rabbit Hole isn’t lucrative enough to do full-time. I enjoy it. I want it to be sustainable. In years past, I’ve teased big things on the horizon. This year, I just want you to know that I’m going to keep writing. I’ll send paid subscribers some interesting stuff as I can. It might feel experimental! But I want to do nice things for you as often as I’m able.
The massive vessel that was originally carrying the shipping container of Doritos was named the “Courtney L.” Here is a picture of that boat, courtesy of shipspotting.com:
That ship was built in 1992 and was in use until 2014 when it was turned into scrap (It changed its name to EURUS London in 2007). Back in 2006, though, it was on the way from Wilmington, Delaware to Costa Rica and hit a storm, and that’s when an entire 45-foot-long shipping container of Spicy Nacho, Cool Ranch, and Nacho Cheese Doritos fell from its decks and landed in the sea. Even though many bags of Doritos slipped out into the ocean, many more remained inside the container, which was secured and later removed by the National Park Service to keep more people from Dorito looting. The chips were all marked “export,” so presumably some hungry people in Central America did not get their snacks that winter.
So what does the next year of the Rabbit Hole look like? Hard to say. Email newsletters were seen as the Future of Media a few years ago. Now, who knows! I used to talk a lot about newsletter-adjacent stuff on Twitter, but that website is falling apart and shedding users and getting grimmer by the day. I miss the community I had there, but I’m kicking the tires on some other things. I’m on Threads now as @jmarkovich and trying to post more. If you want to find me on BlueSky, I’m @ncrabbithole.com. (I put some first-come, first-serve invites at the top of the email newsletter version of this post for paid subscribers.) I have a YouTube channel that I might use a little more, and I could start making TikToks again, maybe. I could go on and on about all of the swirling thoughts in my head about the great shift in media and WHAT IT ALL MEANS and what I’m gonna do to stay on the forefront, but this newsletter would be even longer and more insufferable than it already is. So this year, let’s go with this strategy: When I’m trying something new, I’ll let you know at the top of the weekly email that you’ll continue to get from me on Thursdays. Deal? Deal.
Right after the Doritos came on shore, an attorney named David Dixon ran out on the beach with a video camera. That year, Frito-Lay asked people to shoot their own homemade 30-second-long Dorito-related commercials. The best one would be shown during Super Bowl in February 2007. Dixon shot the tortilla chip flotsam, assembled the footage, and sent it in. He did not win. A guy from Cary did! Way to go, North Carolina!
That’s really all I have to say. If you find value in this (or, if you just want a sticker), I hope you’ll consider becoming a monthly or yearly subscriber. I’ll do a year-in-review in a few weeks, wrapping up the most- and least-popular newsletters of the year. You can continue to find me in most of the places where you find me now. I’m going to continue to write. I hope you’ll keep sending me tips and story ideas, like this one. I really am grateful, though, and in awe of what this has become. In 2020, I started this as a place to experiment. To write stuff that I didn’t have a venue for. To get weird. Three years later, I’m still having fun, and I’m still happy to be talking with all of you. So, truly, sincerely, thank you from the bottom of my heart. North Carolina is the best state in the country, and you are the best person in it. Yes, I’m talking directly to you. Not those other 7,600+ people. YOU.
In December 2018, 12 years after the Doritos washed ashore, the National Park Service made another tortilla chip-related discovery. Down on Harkers Island, rangers were cleaning up after a storm and discovered an empty Doritos bag that seemingly dated from 1979.
Things quickly took an ominous turn. Facebook commenters pointed out that the bag may not have been 40 years old after all. People noted that detailed nutritional information didn’t appear on bags from that era. Others said the copyright date doesn’t always match the production date. Someone noted that it may have been a retro design on a new bag. One person said there’s no way that a bag would hold up that well after four decades in nature. The Park Service had to jump in the comments to reply to people who angrily accused them OF PLANTING THE BAG AND FABRICATING THE WHOLE STORY.
Rangers initially hoped that the Facebook post would be an example of how long plastics can last in nature. I think it turned into an example of how passionate people can get about the most seemingly inconsequential things. I know that feeling well.
Thank you for your support of the North Carolina Rabbit Hole.